Long Beach, Calif.
Worn down after a cross-country flight and a 90-minute battle through rush hour in Los Angeles, we trudged into the concrete elevator building alongside the Queen Mary Hotel. When the doors opened and we strolled onto A deck we were in another era, one defined by royalty, wealth and fame.
We had booked a hotel, but we found history.
"I thought I was walking onto a movie set from the Roaring '20s," Jerry Hoehn of Lake of the Woods, Va., said. "I tried to imagine the people who had crossed that threshold before us."
The 74-year-old Queen Mary hasn't sailed since 1967. But the still-posh ocean liner continues to pamper passengers as a hotel in Long Beach.
Spending one night aboard the Queen Mary before leaving on a cruise from the Port of Los Angeles started as a joke: stay on a cruise ship before taking a cruise.
But the Queen Mary is no ordinary hotel.
There are no rock-climbing walls, ice skating rinks, surfing simulators or bowling alleys on the Queen Mary. This ship served as transportation, not a destination — a high-class way to get from England to the United States.
Compared with the megaliners sailing the seas today, the rooms are spacious — almost suite-sized — with polished wood-paneled walls. Guests can chose comfortable king-, queen- or twin-sized beds, with plush comforters, light blankets and plenty of pillows.
Three restaurants offer classic dining daily for guests. The breakfast at Promenade Cafe, which was part of our room package, included a cooked-to-order menu or a well-stocked buffet that could meet any taste.
Add the Queen's history and it is easy to feel like royalty aboard this beauty.
Construction of the Queen Mary, which began in 1930, stalled for a time during the Great Depression. But despite the tough economic times the Cunard Line spared no expense. Nothing on this ship can be called cheap, a fact that is evident as soon as you board.
"Boy, there sure is a lot of wood," Hoehn's wife, Barb, said.
There is no escaping the wood. It's in the hallways, the cabins, the public rooms, the decks, the ceilings, the stairs, the elevators, the front desk. It's everywhere — 56 types of highly polished veneers, one for each of the British protectorates at the time the ship was built, according to Dustin Officer, a tour guide on the ship. Six of the 56 types are now extinct.
The wood is responsible for one of the Queen Mary's few concessions to modern commercialism: The ship has an official wood treatment, Old English Furniture Polish, according to a small, tasteful plaque on the Promenade Deck.
No detail was too small for the ship's designers. In the first-class main lounge, each light was carved from the same piece of onyx to ensure a consistent glow. The room, like many of the public spaces onboard, has stunning fireplaces. But they were for show, not warmth. The only coal-burning fireplace on the Queen Mary was in the first-class smoking lounge, where the rising heat from the fire helped pull cigar and cigarette smoke from the room.
Art also plays a prominent role onboard, with elaborate murals, paintings, sculptures and wood carvings. Some of the most famous works are murals by Doris Zinkeisen in the Veranda Room, which Officer called "the most exclusive restaurant on the high seas.'' At night it became the Starlight Room, where passengers "could dance until 6 in the morning and the band never questioned it," Officer said.
The largest of Zinkeisen's murals was damaged during World War II when gunnery officers tacked charts to poster board that covered the work. After the war, a miffed Zinkeisen restored the mural, Officer said, but added a dig at Cunard, which prided itself on operating the cleanest ships afloat — no rodents sailed on these great ships.
"She got her revenge," Officer said. "She painted a mouse in the mural so there would always be a mouse on the Queen Mary."
War and peace
Despite the lush adornments, the Queen Mary's real beauty resides in its rich history, which seems to ooze from every porthole.
In 1938 the ship set the speed record for crossing the Atlantic, a distinction it held until 1953.
Comedian Bob Hope played his first wartime show onboard in 1939, volunteering to perform for nervous passengers who had learned while crossing the Atlantic that England and Germany were at war.
The ship did yeoman's work during World War II, ferrying 765,429 members of the military back and forth between the United States and Europe. For one trip, in July 1943, 16,683 people squeezed aboard, a record that still stands.
"She played a major role in every Allied campaign," Officer said. "People don't understand how much of a role she played in the war."
That role didn't end with Germany's surrender. The ship made 13 round trips from England as part of Operation Diaper, Officer said, ferrying servicemen's war brides and children to the United States. About one-quarter of the dependants of U.S. servicemen traveled to their new lives in the United States aboard the Queen Mary.
The ship has also been a hit on the big screen, where the Queen Mary has had roles in The Godfather II, The Natural and The Aviator. It also had a part in Poseidon Adventure, a tale inspired by a piece of its past, according to Officer. A massive wave hit the ship in 1942, tipping it 44 degrees.
"Three more degrees and she would have gone over,'' Officer said.
It has sailed into pop culture, serving as the stage for the Jonas Brothers' video version of S.O.S.
And not long ago Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon had his wedding reception on board.
Though always exuding class, the ship also embraced a rigid class system. The accommodations were divided into first-, second and third-class, and the groups didn't mingle.
Cunard went to great lengths for its first-class passengers. Each day from 4 to 6 p.m., tea time for the elite, the third-class passengers could use the main pool deep inside the ship. But at 6 the pool was closed, drained, cleaned and refilled, Officer said, before the first-class folks returned at 7 p.m.
"We really enjoyed walking around the ship, stopping along the way to read the displays which pointed out the history and its famous passengers," said Bryan Lehman of Lancaster, Pa., who spent two days onboard with his wife, Suzanne. "After a day or two onboard the Queen, you get a sense of the social class structure that was prevalent when the Queen sailed."
There was one event that was shared by the classes.
"Sunday was the one day when everyone got religion," Officer said. The Anglican, Catholic and non-denominational services gave the "lower" passengers a chance to rub elbows with the rich and royalty. The Queen Mary was also the first ship to offer Jewish services.
Not everyone was enthralled by the caste system. Twice while sailing on the Queen Mary, the musician Liberace offered to perform for free, with one stipulation — only third-class passengers could attend.
Women also took a backseat onboard. After dinner, the men would gather to smoke, drink and mull over the important topics of the day. The women, meanwhile, withdrew to the drawing room to knit, read or discuss more genteel topics.
Despite Cunard's efforts, there was one aspect of sailing aboard the Queen Mary that was always exempt from the class system and sexism.
"She carried some of the richest, most famous people. She carried royalty," Officer said. "But when people got seasick, they were all at the same level."
Kyle Kreiger can be reached at [email protected]